Killing for the Cartel

Police believe East LA high-school dropout Jose Saenz has killed a good friend and the mother of his daughter

Neighbors knew Torres as Sam, a “nice guy who never bothered anyone” who operated a party-equipment rental business and a black-stretch Hummer-limo service. But close friends say he went by the street name EZ and was a martial-arts practitioner who routinely frisked even his friends.

“If he met you, he would shake you down,” says Efrain Bello, whose late brother, Bogart, was close to Torres and Ontiveros before his own bizarre death. Torres “didn’t trust anybody. But he was extremely loyal. When my brother disappeared, he was the first person there. He wasn’t afraid of anybody. He was well-respected on the streets.”

Inside the home where Torres was slain, detectives found a man, barely alive, who’d been shot in the back. Inside a sauna in Torres’ bedroom, they found two duffel bags crammed with 40 handguns and assault rifles. Wedged between his mattress and box spring was a short rifle. Over his bedroom door a sign read, EZ Street.

“None of the cars were registered in his [real] name,” says detective Gonzales. “He had no ties to anything. We talked to many of the neighbors, and they had no idea. They just knew him as Sam. There were multiple people who said, ‘Nice guy; we never would have known.’”

Detectives also found a high-tech system of monitors that would later provide chilling video evidence pointing directly to Torres’ friend Smiley as his killer.

Anthony Limon, the victim found shot in the back, told detectives he’d agreed as a favor to limo-service owner “Sam” to ferry around four guys in his Hummer limo that night, picking up the first three and taking them to the upscale Elephant Bar Restaurant in suburban Lakewood, where they picked up Smiley. Then it was on to El Parral Club in working-class South Gate, then several hours cruising in Hollywood, then back to Lakewood.

But one of the guys, whom police later determined was Saenz, was restless. He ordered Limon to drive to Montebello, then, at 5 a.m., ordered him to drive to the limo-owner’s home in Whittier.

Later, at a meeting between LA Sheriff’s detective Traci Gonzales and FBI Special Agent Garriola, she showed him the video retrieved from that night. Like a scene out of The Ring, the video flickers with shadowy, ethereal black-and-white images of Saenz smiling and rubbing his hands together gleefully while knocking repeatedly on Torres’ door. At one point, Saenz reaches into his pants pocket to check on something.

Torres is seen in his underwear opening the door, and the men barge in. Limon told police that, once inside, Smiley pulled a gun on Torres, so Limon jumped in front of Torres and pleaded with Smiley to calm down. Instead, Limon was hit on the head, and as he fell, he heard one of the men he’d driven around all night bark out, “Dome him!”—street lingo for a bullet to the head. Before the shot slammed into his back, he recalled to cops, Limon heard someone giggle.

It was all about that vast amount of cash sitting back in Missouri, confiscated three months earlier by the St. Charles County cops. “There was some money owed and a time table,” Garriola says. “Oscar didn’t meet it.”

Torres had already been forced, either by the local Mexican Mafia or the cartels in Mexico, to prove that the money had really been confiscated by the St. Charles deputies, Gonzales says. “We heard through informants he took the letter [a receipt provided by the Missouri cops] and showed it to his people.”

A month after Torres’ murder, Smiley’s cousin Johnny Prado, who can be clearly seen in the video, was arrested for murder and attempted murder; last November, he went to prison for 26 years. His friends told police he was an industrious construction worker, but, Chavarria says, he couldn’t get away from the East LA gangs. “When they get older, they still have an allegiance,” he says. “If they are called upon, they have to step up.”

Smiley is still out there, crossing back and forth between Mexico and California, cashing in and spreading mayhem. “It is like chasing a ghost,” Chavarria notes.

*     *     *

Bogart Bello’s gravesite at the Calvary Mortuary in East LA is on a hill that overlooks the Guadalupe Church on Third Street and gang territory where he grew up with his childhood friends Torres and Ontiveros. His tombstone reads, “Forever Living On the Top,” an homage to his Lott gang. Most of those buried nearby are long dead, and visitors are few. But Efrain Bello tends his brother’s site religiously.

“The police don’t care,” says Bello of his brother’s death. “It’s like, ‘another drug dealer dead.’ I don’t think my life can continue until there is justice for my brother. To me, it was the worst thing that could ever happen.”

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